I left this comment over at The Passive Voice in response to a post by well-known author and teacher Dave Farland~
You can write what you know AND what you imagine, both at the same time.
Beneath every work, well, let me start again…
Beneath every good/great work is a kernel of truth that resonates with the reader. In other words, even a work of science fiction must be built upon a kernel of truth. That truth is a cornerstone, the cornerstone.
A work of science fiction must contain characters with whom a reader can relate. Actual three-dimensional characters, and I don’t care if they are purple three-eyed four-legged ten foot tall aliens. They still must possess qualities with which we, the reader, can relate- wants, needs, desires. They must face challenges which resonate with us. In that sense a writer is writing what he/she knows.
“Because if all of us wrote what we knew, the world would be filled with books about ordinary people living out simple lives in boring towns and cities around the globe.”
If we don’t start with a kernel of truth, (or what we know)- and proceed to spin a fantastic yarn around that truth – even science fiction is pedestrian, ordinary, boring. Just another boring alien on another boring planet living out his boring day to day life.
Now, the other comments are interesting. One person responded that this advice, ‘write what you know’, is the worst advice she ever received. I’ll let you head over there to read the comments if you’re curious.
Let me explain why ‘write what you know’ is not the worst advice you will ever receive.
Every single thing you write, from poetry to prose, everything you draw or paint, will be what you know. There is nothing you can write that you don’t know.
What do I mean?
I mean whatever you put on paper (or canvas) comes out of your brain. Doesn’t matter if your setting is Mars or one of the moons of Saturn. Doesn’t matter if your characters live a thousand years in the future or a thousand years in the past. Your story will be colored by what you know. Your characters will be outlined, filled in, and shaded by what you know.
Your life experience is not mine and mine is not yours. Therefore your work, whether it is science fiction/fantasy or romance or straight up lit fic, will be unique to you. (Unless you choose to plagiarize.) Your voice is what you know even if your voice doesn’t sound like your everyday voice. Even if you don’t realize it’s your voice. Author Lawrence Block, writing as Jill Emerson, is a perfect example.
What I am saying is this- Nothing comes out of a vacuum. Nothing. 🙂 In fact, nature abhors a vacuum.
Your brain knows more than you think it knows. It stores up experiences, sounds, words, entire conversations, visions of sunsets and summer thunderstorms. The seeds are planted. Your brain waters them. The seeds are what you know. What you know grows your story.
If you choose to believe you know nothing, then indeed, you will write nothing. But you are lying to yourself. You know plenty. ‘Write what you know’ even if what you know is a three-eyed raven. Especially if what you know is a three-eyed raven. That three-eyed raven is your truth. Write it down.